What if we could revolutionize agriculture by making the food we grow tastier? Dan Barber, one of the country’s most lauded chefs, insists that it’s possible and sustainable to feed the world by focusing our collective efforts on flavor, even hedonism.
In modern decades, deliciousness has not been the primary goal of the enormous seed companies that control most of the world’s food production. Today’s vegetables and grains are selected or genetically engineered for their high yield and their ability to be shipped long distances, grow in a wide range of conditions, and tolerate disease, drought and, in some cases, the application of large amounts of herbicide. The results? Perfectly round tomatoes, bruise-less peaches and uniform grapes that often taste like nothing.
It might sound quaint, impractical or out-of-touch to suggest that seed breeders like Monsanto and Syngenta turn their attention to taste over seemingly more important, prosaic criteria. After all, the world stands at the precipice of a food crisis. A pair of recent reports from the World Resources Institute and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that farming will need to yield more crops using less energy in the next few decades to feed a growing population without wrecking the global climate.
But Barber makes a persuasive case for the many ways that pursuing flavor can drive sustainable eating habits and positively transform the food system from the ground up.
At first glance, the chef and co-owner of two upscale restaurants — Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located on a small nonprofit farm in New York’s Hudson Valley — seems an unlikely warrior in the struggle against world hunger and climate crisis. But Barber’s vision of the food system, as described in his 2014 book, ”The Third Plate,” has garnered plaudits from former Vice President Al Gore and Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”The Sixth Extinction.”
And recently, Barber has put his money where his mouth is. A year and a half ago, he co-founded a seed company, Row 7, that is breeding new varieties of vegetables focused on their tastiness and their suitability for organic farming.
The company is still new and small, but Barber thinks its approach holds answers to some of the biggest questions about how we can meet the food demands of the future. Questions like: How can we grow food that is simultaneously more ecologically sustainable and more nutritious? How can we increase food production while decreasing food waste? How can we get people who eat lots of meat to eat less of it? In his view, tastiness is not a trivial matter but an indispensable part of the solution.
To learn more, I caught up with Dan Barber by phone as he oversaw dinner preparations at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
It’s unusual for a chef to launch his own seed business. When did you first become interested in seeds?
My cooking has always been simple. That got me to focus on the quality of ingredients. That led me to how things were being grown and raised, and the discovery that a recipe that I produce in my kitchen actually starts with a variety of seed. The seed foretold what kind of flavor would come from the plant.
Then, in 2009, we had this cataclysmic event here in the Hudson Valley with a fungal disease called late blight. If you were an organic tomato farmer, you were out of business within 48 hours.
“You don’t have to give up on producing a good harvest because you’re pursuing deliciousness. That’s a false choice.”
I went out to the field, which is 300 feet beyond the kitchen here at Blue Hill. We were growing an acre and a half of tomatoes. It looked like Chernobyl, like it had been bombed and all the plants turned black. I’m walking the rows, and all of a sudden, it’s like a movie that goes from black and white to color. I see a row of beautiful red tomatoes. Jack Algiere, the farmer, tells me, “I planted these experimental seeds. They were bred for resistance to late blight.” I brought these red tomatoes back to the kitchen and we sliced them, me and the sous-chef, and we just started laughing. They were so delicious — really sweet. That was the moment when I thought, “The power of seed is intense.” That opened up this whole world for me.
Row 7 focuses foremost on breeding plants for flavor. Is it reasonable to prioritize flavor rather than yield, given both the pressures on farmers and the need to feed a growing population?
You don’t have to give up on producing a good harvest because you’re pursuing deliciousness. That’s a false choice. We’re looking at developing new varieties of vegetables and grains that are nutrient-dense and delicious and also have great agronomic characteristics in the field. The future is really about acknowledging that flavor and deliciousness have to be a driver in this to sustain a culture.
The origin story for Row 7 is the honeynut squash, which started with a conversation I had with Michael Mazourek, my business partner, 10 years ago. I said to him, “If you’re such a great breeder, why don’t you breed a butternut squash that actually tastes good?” He said, “In all my years of breeding, no one has ever asked me to select or breed for flavor,” which is something I will never forget.
We started pursuing this squash that he had in mind, which was like a butternut squash but it was shrunken. You can hold it in the palm of your hand, and the importance of that was just concentrated flavor — a lot of the water was eliminated through the selection. And so today, the honeynut is sold now coast to coast at all major farmers markets. It’s in Trader Joe’s and Wegmans. Blue Apron harvested 1.7 million pounds in 2017, and it’s a runaway success because of the interest in the flavor.
So how does the yield of honeynut compare to the yield of the butternut?
It’s about 30% less yielding than the butternut, but it contains about 70% less water. Every bite of honeynut is about 10 times the flavor and nutrients of a butternut.
Row 7 launched the improved honeynut last year, called 898. It’s a trial number. I think the flavor’s actually a little bit better, along with the disease resistance and the yield. And we will introduce yet another one probably next year.
Currently, the honeynut grows in cold climates, like the Hudson Valley. But, let’s say five years from now, we’re releasing a new trial number. It might be a honeynut that’s specifically suited for dry weather conditions, a microregional adaptation for, say, the Southeast that will have certain kind of attributes that allow it to thrive in that environment. That’s ultimately where we want to go. So it’s not one-size-fits-all. We need a company that’s breeding for those geographic differences and allowing seeds to thrive in very different environments.
In your writing, you suggest that seed-breeding — especially breeding for diversity and, as you say, deliciousness — could transform the food system. Could you explain how that would work?
One of the keys is to support research and development that goes toward good, modern, strong seeds. That is not a place that for-profit seed companies have wanted to invest.
We’ve right now released a variety of squash where the vines of the plant have been bred to be edible. That may sound like small potatoes in a big question like “How do you feed the world?” But if you were to go outside my kitchen door now, you’d see an acre of squash growing in the field. And the fruit, the squash itself, is really only about 30%. All that possible nutrition and calories and flavor from the leaves and stems is tossed in the compost pile. But what if we changed the game and stopped breeding for just that little fruit that comes out of the middle of this huge vine?
So we introduced a squash that does just that. And that’s another way to think about breeding for the future is to cut down on food waste.
Recently, there have been a number of dire predictions about the likelihood of a global food crisis. Can you really feed the average person affordably while focusing on taste?
First of all, those assumptions are often made based on our current diets, plus the idea that a rising global middle class, mostly in Asia, is going to desire more meat. I don’t see that as a delicious future, and I don’t see it as a possible future.
We just released a squash called “centercut” exactly for this reason. It’s a squash that looks very much like a porterhouse steak and is stunningly delicious and tastes like meat.
“Who the hell needs the meat when you have something that tastes this delicious?”
It was bred, again, by Michael Mazourek. In fact, I’m looking at it now across the kitchen. Tonight we’ll be serving it as a last-course steak on the tasting menu with an accompaniment of creamed spinach and potatoes. It’s going to have a rich Bordelaise sauce. I started serving it last week, and people went bananas over this and they are just like, “Who the hell needs the meat when you have something that tastes this delicious?”
If we breed and we release seeds that are so delicious, we don’t crave meat as much. Meat becomes either a sideshow or nonexistent on your plate. This is not a call to vegetarianism; it’s a call to deliciousness.
Is it reasonable for a chef who runs expensive restaurants to be a voice for the sustainability of food?
If you look at the history of the Western world, food trends largely begin from chefs — whether it’s the drive toward veganism and vegetarianism or toward ingredients like kale and Greek yogurt. These trends were all driven by chefs who were pursuing really delicious flavor. And in that sense, I don’t think it’s out of our jurisdiction to talk about sustainability.
Chefs do have this bully pulpit today, and I’m using it to suggest that there is a future that is sustainable and democratic and more delicious than the one we have now. I am talking about the opportunity for restaurants and for chefs to create a blueprint for the future of a plate of food. But, of course, it’s going to take a lot of voices, not just chefs.
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